Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Open covenants of peace openly arrived at"

The bloggers and friends of Covenant Zone meet every Thursday, 7-9pm, in the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library. You'll find us in front of Blenz Coffee, often wearing blue scarves. In any case, we will be the ones having the free-flowing conversation about politics, good faith, and nationhood, and what ordinary people can do to insure Canada remains a self-ruling country. Please join us if you can.

I'm guessing at this week's Covenant Zone we will be discussing how we might encourage people to take a greater interest in representing, in their own ways and beings, our modern freedoms/responsibilities. A question often on my mind: what are these freedoms/responsibilities based on, historically and today? Is their essence in the utilitarian nature of the modern economy's encouragement and servicing of desire? In other words, is our responsibility essentially to engage in economic transactions? Or do they ultimately depend on deeper currents in Western civilization, like Christianity, that are essential to setting the stage for modern economics, but without being part of modern utilitarian thought? Thinking about this, I happened across a poem from a quite different era, "The Fourth of August", by Laurence Binyon. The title is a reference to the beginning of the First World War. The poem is a paean to English nationhood, of a kind that many people today are uncomfortable with, precisely because this kind of high-minded call to defend the nation was contemporary with wars that took millions of lives.

Yet, my mind dwells on the question of whether the poem is just propaganda, full of the same vain ideas that Germans told themselves as they prepared to fight the English. Binyon thinks, and I think he was right, that English nationalism, in contrast with that of Prussia's or Germany's, was based on something rather more Christian, less modern, or, perhaps, less pagan:

She [England] fights the fraud that feeds desire on
Lies, in a lust to enslave or kill,
The barren creed of blood and iron,
Vampire of Europe's wasted will...

Endure, O Earth! and thou awaken
Purged by this dreadful winnowing-fan,
O wronged, untameable, unshaken
Soul of divinely suffering man.

Today, when we are lost and looking for direction, dare we tamper again with the transcendent truths of a religion that embraces suffering, a religion that led millions to fight and die, in defense of freedom as they saw it, and to win a horrible war? Or do we look for the postmodern equivalent of the "barren creed of blood and iron" in hopes of finding some more certain truth in the material powers that many think rule this world? Can there be any real strength in a relatively certain "faith" in power?

Finally, let us remember that it was the guilt and horror - at their bloody victory - in the culture of the nations that won the First World War that undermined their resolve to prepare well to fight the next war, to check the military expansion of the resentful losers, preferring instead the dreamy covenants of Woodrow Wilson. I've just read that Adolf Hitler was invited to speak at Columbia University in 1933. And Iran's Ahmadinejad was invited to speak there just this week. We may yet have to learn again that there is only one religion that can defeat the pagan gods, however much some people think all religions and nationalisms are all the bloody same thing.

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